An entrepreneurial vision for a new Navajo future
Heather Fleming and Jessica Stago, co-founders of Change Labs have spent the last decade accounting for the damage done by generations of displacement and dispossession to the spirit of entrepreneurship in their home. While news reporting agencies recently boasted that 90% of the country’s adults aged 25 and older have graduated high school, less than half of the adult residents of the Navajo Nation have earned a diploma. The unemployment rate, which has continued to dip since the late 1980s, sits at around fifty percent and nearly half of those who are employed work for the government. Over 90% of the Navajo Reservation legally belongs to the U.S. government, from which the Navajo Nation and individual or family occupants lease their land. “Fee simply property,” land that is owned by individuals and can be sold at will, comprises less than one percent of property in the reservation.
The most important legacy of the nineteenth century treaties between the Navajo and the United States federal government is that they have created a strict regulatory environment that discourages potential small business owners from seeing the value in entrepreneurship. Small businesses are central to the health and vitality of the national economy, and Change Labs believes the same can be true for the Navajo Nation. Additionally, Navajo people themselves have been reluctant to embrace small business ownership as a pathway to economic development for their community. For the Navajo people, individualism and the pursuit of capitalistic gain are principles that belong to colonizers and have no place in their community. Fleming, who serves as Change Labs’s current Executive Director sees this collective distrust of Western European concepts as one of Tuba City’s lesser understood barriers to community economic development.
In 2018, Change Labs convened a group of enterprising folks from various tribes around the Southwest at a series of sessions called the Lexicon Workshops to reconcile entrepreneurship with Native American identity. During the workshop, they deliberated over words, concepts, and symbols that better reflected their aspirations as small business owners. They shared phrases that meant to work for yourself; signified one who makes work; and one phrase that meant to live in harmony. Participants left the Lexicon Workshop with a new framework for understanding and articulating the power of entrepreneurship to foster prosperity, ownership, and self-sufficiency for all of Tuba City’s residents.
The Change Lab’s Business Incubator teaches new entrepreneurs how to launch businesses on tribal lands. After completing the program, small businesses can apply for up to $10,000 in seed funding. Change Labs guarantees ongoing mentorship and lifetime access to their stakeholder network. 85% of Change Lab’s Business Incubator graduates are still in business today. The Business Incubator gives native entrepreneurs access to coaching; operations and financial support; comprehensive branding and marketing support, and even workspace to meet each business’s needs. In addition to opportunities for seed funding, Change Labs has made business loans available to Navajo entrepreneurs through its partnership with Nusenda Federal Credit Union. Kinship Lending offers low interest, relationship-based loans of up to $5000 that require no credit check, fees, or costs to apply.
Change Lab’s leadership also mobilizes strategic partnerships to ameliorate the strict regulatory environment that stifles entrepreneurship in Tuba City. An alliance forged with economic evaluation firm, Casual Design, has produced an assessment of Tuba City’s business landscape based on a set of indicators established by the World Bank. Native entrepreneurs can use the report as they identify best practices for operating their businesses in the city. Change Labs and Casual Design have also published public policy recommendations to improve the business environment for native entrepreneurs in the short and long term. To support this advocacy work, Change Labs partnered with the Dineh Chamber of Commerce and the ACES School to form The Native Entrepreneurship Coalition, which brings together leaders, entrepreneurs, and change makers to reimagine the policies and systems that support business startup and growth on the Navajo Nation.
Change Labs leadership brings their diverse training and expertise to bear on economic stagnation in the Navajo Nation. The nation they are building will not only have the capacity to feed its native inhabitants, but also to nurture and activate their talent, creativity, and resilience. Change Labs encourages native entrepreneurs in Tuba City to re-imagine themselves and build a new reality on the Navajo nation, which will create pathways for those who have joined the native diaspora to come home.